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Thu Feb 13, 2020, 06:59 PM

Modern technology is akin to the metaphysics of Vedanta [View all]

I am posting this under philosophy because it rests in what is a rather grey zone in regards to the polarized and political, extreme views regarding science, technology, metaphysics and religion. In a sense, beyond Vedanta, Advaita Vedanta, Dzogchen, Bon and similar disciplines, do not fit neatly in a typical western's idea of religion since the categories we now use were not divided in the same way we do that, but that is a historical matter. The Vedas relate information on a variety of topics, for instance.

Not that I am appealing to authority, but Sam Harris is rather positive about Dzogchen, for example, and if you read his books, he makes some good points about its difference from Western projection of theology as a matter of fact in all such matters. There is plenty of information about the kind of skepticism he has utilized in his approach to those subjects. From there we can wonder if Westerners consider the investigation of the mind/reality a primarily religious perspective from a presupposition, or will it require a better understanding of what is being considered prior to forming biased conclusions about it. We will see. We see stereotypes abound, confirmation biases rule, and polarization intrudes.

Considering the nature of the "hard problem" itself, (concerning consciousness) and ancient interests in subjects like awareness, consciousness, mind and reality, we might gain some insights into the matter from that form of often formal, (for its time) investigation and commentary. Since awareness/consciousness requires a radical, subjective empiricism in that sense, (in contrast to a physicalism that relies on a metaphysical realism) we can at least consider that the problem, in some ancient disciplines, has been around for a long time and interest in it has been perennial, at least in the West, but interesting is growing for their psychological and ontological relevance to our current quest into the nature of consciousness itself.

Akhandadhi Das is a Vedanta philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian. He is director of Buckland Hall, a conference and retreat centre in Wales, a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, and a broadcaster and advisor to the BBC on Indian philosophical and spiritual traditions.

You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West’, would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century.

The Vedantic quest for understanding begins from what it considers the logical starting point: our own consciousness. How can we trust conclusions about what we observe and analyse unless we understand what is doing the observation and analysis? The progress of AI, neural nets and deep learning have inclined some modern observers to claim that the human mind is merely an intricate organic processing machine – and consciousness, if it exists at all, might simply be a property that emerges from information complexity. However, this view fails to explain intractable issues such as the subjective self and our experience of qualia, those aspects of mental content such as ‘redness’ or ‘sweetness’ that we experience during conscious awareness. Figuring out how matter can produce phenomenal consciousness remains the so-called ‘hard problem’.

Vedanta offers a model to integrate subjective consciousness and the information-processing systems of our body and brains. Its theory separates the brain and the senses from the mind. But it also distinguishes the mind from the function of consciousness, which it defines as the ability to experience mental output. We’re familiar with this notion from our digital devices. A camera, microphone or other sensors linked to a computer gather information about the world, and convert the various forms of physical energy – light waves, air pressure-waves and so forth – into digital data, just as our bodily senses do. The central processing unit processes this data and produces relevant outputs. The same is true of our brain. In both contexts, there seems to be little scope for subjective experience to play a role within these mechanisms.


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